“Laurel, your sound stops at your butt.”
All hilarious Family Guy-esque mental pictures aside, this interchange, ladies and gentlemen, comes from my first lesson with Dr. Karl Paulnack while at The Boston Conservatory. Imagine my surprise when one of the most profoundly gifted, insightful, and dear teachers I came to know began a series of comments in my first lesson with that!
“I’m sitting here listening, and you are so ungrounded that it actually feels like your sound stops at your butt. You’re only using half of your body to play. You need to get grounded!”
The idea of getting grounded was not new, but it was still a rather elusive concept. First introduced to me in an acting class, I learned there how important it was to “find your feet” in order to breathe openly (aka properly) and connect with the objectives of my character. In my musical training before this lesson with Dr. Paulnack there was only brief mention of such a concept, and it was usually tied into getting “centered” for a multi solo or timpani excerpt, never just on its own as an important factor.
Throughout the rest of that lesson, Dr. Paulnack and I talked about ways to find the support of the body; he spoke from a pianist’s point of view, which was still incredibly helpful, as they have an additional obstacle in the process due to the fact that they sit when they play. The body is the body and playing music is playing music, regardless of the medium – I learned much from Dr. Paulnack, even though we only had four lessons together.
Find Your Feet
We call someone “grounded” when they seem to have a solid handle on the priorities of life, are not thrown off balance by shallow encounters or arguments, and know who they are. The phrase “down to earth” is synonymous, too.
But here’s the one I really like – find your feet.
It reminds me of two important things when playing music: 1- make sure your sound doesn’t stop at your butt; and 2- find the depth and priority of a piece, and then get comfortable with it. These two ideas are more connected than they may seem. The process of physically getting grounded incorporates an emotional and psychological calm, a sort of inward focus that facilitates full-body connection. Through this calm we see more clearly into the analysis and understanding of a piece, and find a relaxed freedom that grants even more discovery during practice.
“Find your feet” is a remarkably literal phrase for physically grounding yourself. I’ll never forget an experience during a Stage Movement class in undergrad – on the first day, the teacher had us take off our shoes and led us through an exercise to find our feet. I felt like, for the first time, I felt the floor, and it made me stand up in better alignment, move with ease, and gave me a bit of confidence that I had no idea could begin at the soles of my feet. Here’s what she took us through:
1 1. Barefoot, with both feet on the floor, shift weight towards left foot and roll the right foot from flat to balanced on the tip of the toes (think ballerinas on pointe). Do this a few times, noting sensations and connections to the floor.
2 2. Still with the right foot, place the top of the toes on the floor and gently press. (This will make your foot into a C-shape, with the sole on the inside curve of the C.) Alternate between that and step 1.
3 3. Shift your total weight to your left foot, and with the right slightly off the ground, roll the ankle in slow circles alternating directions: clockwise and counter-clockwise.
4 4. Repeat steps 1-3 for the left foot.
5 5. Stand balanced on both feet and take notice of the sensation of the heel on the floor, the big toe on the floor, the pads of all other toes on the floor. Notice, too, the texture and temperature of the floor itself. Chances are, you’ll notice more than you did before going through this exercise.
Our teacher said something that really stuck with me: the floor comes up to meet you. Sounds odd, but bare with me. The implications here are that the relationship between foot and floor is dynamic; when we stand, we aren’t static on a surface, but there is “give” on both sides. (Don’t believe me? Remember your parents’ squeaky wood floor and you’ll see that I’m right…) More than that, the image of the floor rising to support me gave me a larger sense of power and confidence, and I realized immediately that such an idea could not only transform my playing (and acting), but also help with performance anxiety, which is, of course, very real.
Chances are you’ve noticed that some people like to play barefoot, and I’m not talking just we young’uns in the practice room. Dame Evelyn Glennie likes to play barefoot, and she’s Evelyn Glennie, so… just saying. Here’s a clip from an interview.
I think most musicians would very much like to take their shoes off frankly. And of course, most musicians are already connected with their instruments…they have that instrument resting on part of their body. With percussion you often don’t. You’re detached by the stick, or mallet. So it just gives me that extra dimension of feeling the sound… (source)
But seriously, there is something about playing barefoot that is comfortable in every sense of the word. What’s cool is how it sets us up to find our feet and ground ourselves. For Evelyn to feel the sound she needs a dynamic relationship with the floor, not a reactive one.
Connection to the floor also reminds us that we have legs. When I’m in the middle of a marathon practice I know I’m guilty of forgetting that my legs can be active, not just supports for my torso. Whenever I feel disconnected, I free them by first locking all the joints in my legs and playing a passage, then unlocking everything and playing the passage again: it always sounds better the second time. Sometimes I even do a few squats to help my hips unlock – we, as the bipedal animals we are, tend to lock them far forward, with the pelvis pushed out of alignment with the spine. It’s painful in the long run, but doing a few squats helps restore the proper relationship.
Of course, not everyone plays barefooted, or plays standing up for that matter. I’ve seen NaokoTakada play a concert in 5 inch heels, and then there’s Pius Cheung, who negates all of this by sitting down while he plays. I’ve asked him about it, and he says that sitting helps him feel relaxed and connected to his breath. I’m sure you’d agree: it seems to be working, because he’s a badass.
Full Body Sound
As we feel the floor we establish a connection with our legs. When this happens we set ourselves up to play with our entire bodies, not just our arms or our wrists.
I drew some diagrams to help explain what I mean.
|breath/mind connection (in orange) flows freely into the floor and back up|
support from the floor (in green) rises to the top of the head and back down
|breath/mind connection is blocked and cut short, not even reaching the wrists|
support from the floor is completely blocked, rendering the legs inactive
In addition to helping with loud dynamics and expressivity, playing with the whole body in mind can greatly reduce the risk of injury. Personally, I’m drawn towards rep that forces me to use my legs, which usually means there will be some wide range spreads in the piece. Every time I reach for them I am reminded to unlock my leg joints, which gives me a sort of checkpoint for grounding and connection.
All of us would rather play easily and freely from a body that is fully connected; when we don't do that we resemble the second drawing: a body in two pieces, neither of which is properly supported.
A disconnected body makes technical passages more difficult, expressivity feel forced, and creates a sound that stops at the butt. Since I want my playing to go much farther than the butt (ok, it even feels weird to type that), I remind myself to get grounded by visualizing the first drawing, especially if a practice session isn't going well. Once I find my feet there's usually a profound difference.
Getting grounded is still something I remind myself of everyday, but hopefully one day it will be just as natural as my heart beating - that's the goal, anyway.
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Next in the Marimba Body series: Hips and Sciatics